‘The fear is very real’: how Asian Americans are fighting rising hate crime

A rise in Asian American gun ownership. Blocks-long lines for pepper spray in Manhattan Chinatown. Children kept home from school by fearful parents. Elderly people who have stopped leaving their homes. A warning to Filipinos in the US, issued by the Philippine embassy in DC.

Across the US, Asian American communities have been gripped by anger and despair as hate crimes against them have increased sharply – rising by 339% last year compared with 2020, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. As early as March 2020, the FBI issued a report predicting a “surge” in hate crimes against Asian Americans, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which happened to originate in an Asian country. Adding fuel to the fire: incendiary and racist language – used by irresponsible politicians and repeated across social media – and geopolitical tensions with China.

“All of those are conditions that have led at other times to terrible anti-Asian violence,” says author and activist Helen Zia.

But what’s different this time, says Zia, is that more people recognize the problem. In the 1980s, Zia helped bring about the first federal civil rights case involving an Asian American: Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man was beaten to death by two white auto-workers who took him for Japanese and blamed Japan for the car industry’s struggles. They were merely fined $3,000 each for the killing.

Today Asian Americans, the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the US, are finally in a position to do more than stock up on pepper spray and hope for the best. Meanwhile, academic research on implicit and unconscious bias, improvements in data collection, and social movements like Black Lives Matter have contributed to greater understanding about racism and bias, and the ways that can translate into hate speech and violence. From the local through federal level, community advocates and other leaders have been organizing, debating, and building support, aimed at combating the ongoing epidemic of anti-Asian hate.

People rally calling for action and awareness on rising incidents of hate crime against Asian Americans in Times Square in New York City on 16 March. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

After the Atlanta-area shooting deaths of eight people, six of them Asian women, by a white gunman in March 2021, President Joe Biden announced a set of actions to respond to anti-Asian violence and xenophobia, and in May, further established the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, “to advance equity, justice, and opportunity for AA and NHPI communities”. Among other actions, the initiative will improve data collection methods that have left Asian people underrepresented in government statistics, and by extension, the resulting programs and policies.

Long-term, many agree that the answer lies in education. In January, Illinois became the first state to require that Asian American history be taught in public schools. New Jersey soon followed, and at least nine other states are considering the same. “Members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community have made countless contributions to our state and country, yet they are made virtually invisible by our history books,” said four NJ assembly sponsors of the bill in a joint statement. “This erasure … not only prevents students from gaining a full understanding of our nation’s history, but also opens the door for racial biases that can turn into violence and hatred.”

Kani Ilangovan, a parent and psychiatrist of Make Us Visible NJ, which spearheaded the movement, said she was haunted by events like the 2017 shooting death of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer from India, at a Kansas restaurant, by a white man who called Kuchibhotla and the friend he was with “terrorists” and “Iranians”, and asked whether they were in the country illegally.

In 2020, as anti-Asian violence swelled anew, Ilangovan took comfort in learning about AAPI history and racial justice movements through a book club formed partly in response to the murder of George Floyd. “It gave me a deeper sense of identity and belonging, and helped me learn a lot of history that I was not aware of,” she said.

People gather at the Solidarity Against AAPI Hate rally on the National Mall in Washington DC on 31 May 2021.
People gather at the Solidarity Against AAPI Hate rally on the National Mall in Washington DC on 31 May 2021. Photograph: Bryan Dozier/Rex/Shutterstock

She realized that even in her children’s predominantly Asian school – let alone the predominantly white school she had attended growing up – Asian Americans were not reflected in the curriculum, contributing to their image as “forever foreigners” – not part of the American story, and therefore, not deserving of the same treatment as other Americans. She reached out to members of her book club, and formed Make Us Visible NJ. They were further galvanized when Stop AAPI Hate issued a 2021 report stating that one in three AAPI parents said their child had experienced a hate incident in the past school year. More than 1,500 signatures, 60 partner organizations, and several rallies later, they helped pass the historic legislation.

Another, less widely embraced response to anti-Asian hate has been the 2021 passing of the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. It builds on the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which required data collection “about crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity” and prompted the FBI to begin publishing its annual report on hate crime statistics. The 1990 act “was a positive development, but the statistics that came out showed that law enforcement agencies weren’t really reporting incidents of violence against Asians,” said Stanley Mark, a senior staff attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Even after 9/11, he said, many of the resulting attacks against Sikh, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim Americans were not classified as hate crimes. (As it was, recorded anti-Muslim hate crimes increased 1,600%.)

The new hate crimes act aims to fill some of those gaps by making it easier to report incidents and incentivizing local police forces to improve their data collection methods, for example through better training around how to identify hate crimes. (It also includes provisions named after Heather Heyer, the woman run over and killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.) “You’re not going to find anti-Asian bias if you’re not looking for it, so this bill does help train police to look for it better,” said Mark.

Members of the Thai-American community along with political leaders and members of law enforcement participate in a rally against Asian hate crimes in Thai Town in Los Angeles on 8 April 2021.
Members of the Thai-American community along with political leaders and members of law enforcement participate in a rally against Asian hate crimes in Thai Town in Los Angeles on 8 April 2021. Photograph: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

However, critics say it does not address the root causes of hate, and fear the statistics will merely result in over-policing of Asian and other ethnic minority communities. “The community is divided about the role of police,” says Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the Asian American Federation, an umbrella organization for non-profits in NYC. In New York City, for example, people reluctant to interact with police can instead report incidents to the Commission on Human Rights, which collects data about (and sometimes acts on) bias, harassment and discrimination incidents in general – a wider array than hate crimes, which are narrowly defined.

“Dedicate resources to local communities,” wrote Stop AAPI Hate in a response to the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act. Existing grassroots efforts that have sprung up during the pandemic offer a glimpse at what locals feel is needed: new community groups, focusing on everything from mutual aid, to activism, to organizing volunteers to patrol the streets, to stoking pride in Asian American culture, have proliferated.

But the depth of the need is daunting. In New York, the most pressing issues Yoo has seen include food insecurity, financial struggle and lack of healthcare access among the many Asian workers whose industries were disproportionately affected by the pandemic (eg nail salons, restaurants, and other service-based industries). Elderly people are afraid to leave their homes and isolated by language and technological barriers to accessing social service programs. Domestic violence has increased.

Yoo also says there is widespread fear and burnout among non-profit workers themselves, who have spent the past two-plus years on the frontlines: feeding people, organizing grief circles, going door-to-door setting up Zoom for elderly people, meeting with victims of violent attacks, and struggling “to figure out what we are going to do”.

Moreover, they, and many other Asian Americans, continue their work while feeling unsafe themselves. “I get a lot of emails saying, my boss is asking us to come back to work but I’m afraid to ride the subway,” Yoo said. “I’m calling on corporations to come up with a plan to protect their staff, because the fear is very real.”

Yoo sees an enormous need for mental health services – for victims of racially motivated violence, bystanders who witness such crimes, the communities traumatized by fear, and perpetrators themselves. “Many of the assailants were homeless with severe mental illness. Where’s the help for them?” she says. (New York City’s unhoused population is at its highest level since the Great Depression, and the city, under the new Eric Adams administration, has been forcibly removing unhoused people from the city’s subways and tearing down homeless encampments.)

“This country is going through this major crisis on a global level, and it provides a breeding ground for racism, for hatred, and oppression of all sorts,” says Dr DJ Ida, executive director of the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association. “When people are stressed, the ugliness rears its head.”

What makes hate crimes insidious for victims, she explains, is that, while a random mugging or attack can be deeply traumatizing, there remains “a sense of, ‘I was in the wrong place at the wrong time’”. With hate crimes, by contrast, there is no escaping the situation, “because it’s escaping who we are. The psychological implications of that can be very profound.”

Ida said that for those working in mental health, the Biden administration’s proposed 2023 budget has been a source of hope. It allocates an unprecedented billions upon billions to expand access to mental health services – for example, $1bn to double the number of school counselors and other school health professionals over the next 10 years.

Ultimately, many agree that whatever the federal, policy and big-picture solutions, combating hate boils down to individuals taking action. “Legislation helps, but you can’t legislate away hate. You have to deal with it on a local, day-to-day level,” said Stanley Mark, the AALDEF lawyer.

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